NASA and the ESA’s new Solar Orbiter is off to an auspicious start. The spacecraft’s very first images of the Sun—captured from within 48 million miles of our closest star—don’t just give us a closer look at the Sun than ever before… they’ve already led to a new discovery.
The new solar orbiter, launched on February 10th of this year, only just finished the “commissioning” phase of its mission when the scientists are checking that everything works properly. The fact that its first images are already revealing new phenomena “hints at the enormous potential of Solar Orbiter,” according to the ESA.
“These are only the first images and we can already see interesting new phenomena,” says Daniel Müller, ESA’s Solar Orbiter Project Scientist. “We didn’t really expect such great results right from the start. We can also see how our ten scientific instruments complement each other, providing a holistic picture of the Sun and the surrounding environment.”
The new phenomenon Mr. Müller is talking about are described as “omnipresent miniature solar flares” which they’ve dubbed “campfires,” that occur near the surface of the Sun and have never been seen before. You can see this phenomenon highlighted in the image below (click to enlarge):
The images were captured by the orbiter’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) when the spacecraft was about halfway between Earth and the sun—just 77 million km (47.8 million miles) from the star’s surface. From this vantage point, the orbiter was able to spot the miniature flares, which are “[a] million or billion times smaller” than the flares we can see from Earth.
This might seem like a small discovery (literally and figuratively) but scientists believe that these images and the “campfires” they reveal might help explain why the solar corona—a layer of the Sun’s atmosphere that extends millions of kilometres into outer space—is “orders of magnitude hotter” than the surface of the Sun itself.
The ESA says understanding this phenomenon is “the ‘holy grail’ of solar physics.”
But even if you don’t care about all that, these never-before-seen close-ups of the Sun are just plain fascinating… and they’re just the beginning. As the Solar Orbiter hits its stride, it will begin sending many more images of the Sun that reveal details—and even sections of the star—that have never been observed before.
To learn more about these first images, the campfires, or dive deeper into the equipment on the Solar Orbiter, check out the video up top or head over to the ESA website.